As a participant in the AGBU Global Leadership Program, I chose to spend my summer in Yerevan, Armenia, to learn more about Armenian life and immerse myself in the culture firsthand by exploring the country in hopes of discovering my Armenian identity while also developing professionally. This opportunity has helped me grow personally and professionally while providing me with cultural exposure and a global perspective. Growing up with an American perspective of the world, traveling to Armenia has been truly transformative, and I have a better understanding of what it is like to live in a small Christian country that has to be self-reliant, dynamic, and innovative to help its people flourish. I have an appreciation for the survival of this country of three million people, its culture, history, language, and traditions.

A prominent reason I came to Armenia was to pursue an internship in Yerevan and gain working experience to leverage in my future career. Interning at Deem Communications, a marketing and PR creative agency with a team of passionate and creative individuals, has been enriching. I have enjoyed working with and learning from a close-knit group of welcoming people who collaborate on ideas, discuss diverse thoughts, and work together. I completed research for a waste management project, wrote a human success story of project beneficiaries, worked on filmmaking packages, and polished resumes.

My hometown is Tenafly, New Jersey, outside of New York City. I am Armenian on my father’s side and Italian on my mother’s. Both Italians and Armenians are very similar in that they value hard work, education, tradition, and family above all else. Food is at the heart of both cultures.  Growing up around my Armenian family, the traditional dishes of pilaf, dolma, and desserts of chorek and kadayif were served around a table of lively and opinionated discussions during gatherings and holidays. As a young girl, I have heard stories of my Armenian family’s history and how they came to America. My grandfather was born in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), while my grandmother’s family is from Diyarbakir, Turkey. My great-grandmother, Nafina Aroosian, a survivor of the Armenian Genocide, was on the “death march,” walking with her two little daughters, my great aunts, Gladys and Alice, through the scorching hot desert to Aleppo, Syria, from Diyabakir, in southern Turkey. As a descendant of Genocide survivors, I must honor their memory with my pursuits and therefore have journeyed back to Armenia. 

The first time I visited Armenia was with my family in June of 2019, after I graduated from high school. My uncle Peter Balakian, an Armenian Genocide scholar, described Yerevan from his visits as a mini-Paris, a city of lights, with boulevards of exquisite restaurants, cafes, and shops.  My father, on the other hand, based on his travels to Armenia in the late 1980s, described the food as “Chicken Chernobyl”, as Armenia was still part of the Soviet Union. My conclusion was that Yerevan is somewhere in between these two contrasting images. I was pleasantly surprised that it is a mix of the historic and the modern, a bustling city of just over one million people. I was impressed with how clean and lively the city is, with many fabulous restaurants, cafes, bars, museums, art galleries, and boutique shops. Throughout the city, there are remains of Armenia’s past in the art, architecture, and stone-carved khachkars. Across Armenia, these stone-carved crosses are intricately and elaborately designed, symbolizing the crucifixion. Many khachkars are carved with the wheel of eternity, rosette flowers, and symbols of the sun. Armenians are proud people who honor their past and historical figures; and we see their statues all over the country.

This summer, I had the opportunity to return to Yerevan with my sister on the AGBU Global Leadership Program. When I was younger, I went to Camp Nubar, an Armenian camp in upstate New York. I realized how important it was to bond with other Armenians and immerse ourselves in Armenian culture by studying the language, cooking traditional dishes, and learning traditional dance. I have enjoyed exploring Yerevan, visiting historical sites, and traveling to different parts of the country with other young diasporan Armenians from the United States, Canada, Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. There is a sense of comfort and security in Armenia.

Highlighted below are a few places to visit in the capital city, Yerevan.  
  1. Cascade – Cafesjian Foundation for the Arts: Filled with artwork from the Cafesjian Center for the Arts. Climb the giant stairway made of limestone and take a photo of the terrific views of Yerevan.  
  2. Republic Square: The vibrant and lively city center with fountains and colorful lights at night People dance, play music, and speak different languages. I celebrated my first Vardavas festival, a pagan ritual where everyone splashes each other with water as a way of celebrating Astghik, the goddess of fertility.
  3. The Genocide Memorial: Dedicated to the victims of the 1915 Armenian Genocide. A very solemn place to honor and remember the innocent martyrs slaughtered. Allocate some time for the museum section as well. 
  4. Yerablur Memorial: The military burial place honors the soldiers who died during the war in Nagorno-Karabakh. Perhaps meet a family member of a soldier and hear their story.  
  5. Mother Armenia: The statue of an Armenian woman with a sword in her hand stands tall, defending the city, symbolizing peace through strength. 
  6. Museums: Visit the History Museum of Armenia, located in the Republic Square, to learn more about the country’s history and culture. Go to The Matenadaran – Mesrop Mashtots (creator of the Armenian alphabet) Institute of Ancient Manuscripts. Go to the Parajanov Museum and walk through the house of the filmmaker. 
  I loved exploring the beautiful country of Armenia and its dreamy landscape of rolling hills and gorges. Traveling in and out of the city of Yerevan, with the view of Mount Ararat in the distance across the border in Turkey.

Here are some places to visit outside of Yerevan:
  1. Lake Sevan: “The Jewel of Armenia”. It is the biggest freshwater lake in the Caucasus. Climb the hill and see the beautiful panoramic views of the majestic lake and mountainous surroundings. 
  2. Etchmiadzin Cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site: Visit the holy place of Echmiadzin Cathedral, the mother church, which is one of the oldest cathedrals in the world and the first cathedral built in ancient Armenia. There are beautiful gardens, interesting architecture, and many intricately carved khachkars.
  3. Visit the Monastery of Gerhard and the Temple of Garni. Gerhard is the medieval monastery, another UNESCO World Heritage Site that dates back to the 4th century.  Gerhard includes churches, chapels, and caves. Nearby is the ancient pagan Greco-Roman temple, Garni, dedicated to the sun god Mihr. It served as a royal summer residence for Armenian kings and was used as a fortress during war. 
  4. Trip to the region of Tavush and Dilijan: A quaint town with artisan shops and restaurants.  
  5. Gyumri: This city is in the northeast corner of Armenia. Visit one of the many Khachkar stone carvers for the opportunity to chisel a cross in stone. Take a walk through the city.  Try a Ponchick, a donut with vanilla cream, or a Monchik, a donut with nutella. Visit the Dzitoghtsyan Museum of National Architecture which dates back to the 19th century and exhibits daily life back then. DeeM also did a huge city branding effort for this city called Open Gyumri – check it out! 
  6. Climb Mount Aragats. Be sure to bring a warm jacket and hiking boots. At first, it is hot, but as you climb, the temperature drastically drops.  
  Lake Sevan